Millennials and the Key to Mainline Decline

Man with monkeyWell, it appears that we’ve gotten Millennials (that generation born 1980-2000) wrong.

Jean Twenge has famously tried to make the case that Millennials are lazier and more selfish than previous generations. In books like Generation Me andThe Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Twenge has argued that today’s young people have grown up coddled, having been nurtured with an inflated sense of self-worth in an “every-kid-gets-a-soccer-trophy” world.

Dr. Twenge’s research, though, has been controversial among social scientists for some time. Up until recently the counterargument to Twenge’s assertion of Millennial narcissism centered on the idea that Millennials, far from being more narcissistic than their generational forebears, are just motivated by different things. What has sometimes been taken as laziness or a lack of ambition in the workplace is instead a refusal to chase money in favor of looking for happiness and flexibility.

However, it turns out that even happiness isn’t exactly the right description of what drives Millennials in their career choices. In an article in The the New York Times Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker argue that happiness isn’t a precise enough explanation of what Millennials seek. Instead, the data show that “Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning.”

Meaning, of course, is a slippery word, since the range of its possible significance seems so personal. Smith and Aaker, however, identify meaning as present in those whose “lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

This got me to thinking about the church.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Trashing Jesus Is the Right Thing to Do

Trashing Jesus

Social Media Rorschach Test

I took part in a social media Rorschach Test yesterday.

Before you get your knickers irremediably twisted, you need to pay attention to what’s at stake, because it would be altogether too easy and not particularly profitable to get sidetracked on the Jesus trashing.

Yesterday, as we cleaned out an antebellum mansion the church owns, preparing it for renovation—through a H.U.D. grant—to low cost senior housing, we came across a giant reproduction of Warner Sallman’s iconic, Head of Christ. In the process of trying to break the habit of saving-everything-because-you-never-know-when-Sunday-School-curriculum-from-the 1940s-might-be-useful-again, we threw out a bunch of stuff.Hence this picture of me tossing out a faded, but much beloved, Protestant icon.

What’s interesting, however, is not that we threw out a picture that many people consider something like sacred—we threw out some torn study bibles from the 1930s, too, which made some people duck for fear of lightning—but that it got photographed and posted to social media, where people reacted to it.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Two Reasons the Next Thing You Do Probably Won’t Kill Your Congregation


I sometimes feel as though I couldn’t take one more crisis. At those times I feel like if I get one more phone call telling me something is going wrong with one of my kids at school, or with a disgruntled parishioner, or the checking account is unexpectedly overdrawn that I’ll … I don’t know. I guess I feel like I won’t be able to withstand another thing.

The only thing I can think to call it is “feeling thin”—stretched to the point of breaking.

When I feel thin, the whole world seems to conspire against me. I can’t get out of the house on time to get to work or take the kids to school. I can’t find socks in a house when I know I have at least thirty pairs. The oil light flashes. The dog develops strange looking spots. I forget to schedule a meeting I said I’d be responsible for.

Feeling thin leaves me convinced that I have no business owning a house or a car, that I’m in way over my head as a parent, and that I’m only temporarily fooling people at my job into thinking that I know what I’m doing—but a day of reckoning is coming soon. That’s right. The jig will be up shortly, and everybody will finally see me for the fraud that, in my worst moments, I fear that I am. I think about how old I am, and how many more years I can reasonably hope to stick around, and I wonder if I can make it to the finish line without coming undone.

Feeling thin.

Ever feel like that?

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why the Church We Live in Isn’t the Church We Think We Live in

IBM Selectric

Newsflash: Technology Changes!

In the book I spend some time talking about disruption theory and disruptive innovation, detailing the fall of the telegraph. I talk about, what I take to be, the inevitability of disruptive change–technological and otherwise. So, it should come as no surprise that I might lead with the commonplace, “Technology Changes!”

Ok. So, I know everybody is already aware that technology is constantly changing, being persistently threatened by new innovations. Witness the rise and fall of the compact disc, the cellular pager, or whatever particular iteration of the new game console that threatens to harden the commercial arteries at Walmart during the Christmas season.

Moreover, the rate of technological change is rapidly approaching geometric proportions. Moore’s Law of computer hardware, for example, states that the number of transistors that can be fitted onto an integrated circuit doubles every X number of months (18–24–depending on who you’re asking). The practical upshot of Moore’s Law, from a consumer perspective, is a description of the reason that the shiny new gewgaw you just bought will be obsolete by the time you get it home.

But here’s a little wrinkle that might have escaped your attention: Not only does technology change at breakneck speed, but the knowledge necessary to produce technological change also changes at breakneck speed.

“Man, you are full of great information—and by ‘great,’ I mean ‘painfully obvious.’”

Stay with me for a moment because this last proposition drastically alters more than the technical know-how necessary to produce iPads. The rate at which knowledge changes, prompted by technological innovation, completely reshuffles our relationship to our vocations–even those beyond the world of technological design and production.

For most of history, people learned a vocation—most often by apprenticeship of a formal or informal nature. Whether or not the economic environment for a particular kind of work was stable, the kind of knowledge one needed to do the work was stable.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Looking Outward: Declining Congregations Need to Start Asking a Different Set of Questions


I have often thought, and sometimes said, that when I’m writing regularly, everything seems worth writing about. But when I’m writing only when I get the “urge,” nothing seems worth writing about.

When I’ve reoriented my schedule around writing, I find it odd how often things present themselves to me as inspiration for a post or an article, almost like tiny little gifts from the muse. Something one of my kids says. An odd choice of words by a newscaster. An infuriating bit of logic by a politician. Some craziness on Facebook or Twitter. Virtually anything can get the gears spinning.

On the other hand, when I’m not remaining diligent about managing my writing life, it seems that events have to hit me square between the eyes before I notice them as as things upon which it is worth remarking. Of course, this kind of “stuck” is its own disincentive to writing; it’s an appeal to the distractions to “please come take my attention, since I can’t seem to get it to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’m convinced that what we call “writer’s block” is simply getting out of the habit of writing regularly, which means that the ideas dry up, which means that you can’t write (because you have no ideas), which means that ideas have almost no chance at penetrating the thickening shell of non-writing, which means … It’s its own kind of literary vortex, from which escape seems almost impossible.

Why is that? I think it has something to do with awareness. Have you ever watched Jeopardy, and the librarian from Altoona says, “I’ll take literary terms for $1,000, Alex?”

Then Alex says, “The answer is “synecdoche.”

And our librarian friend pipes in with “What is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa?”

Ding! Ding! Ding!

And you say to yourself, “You know, I’ve never heard that term before in my life.”

But next morning, as you’re poring over the New York Times book review, you see synecdoche in two different articles.

And when you come home from work, you’re fifteen year-old is sprawled out on the couch with five books, two empty cans of Dr. Pepper, and a pile of shredded candy wrappers. You say, “What you doing?”

The mumbled reply comes back, “English.”

“What are you studying in English?”

The fifteen year-old looks up casually and says, “Synecdoche,” like what elsewould he be studying?

And your spouse says, “Yeah, I hated synecdoche. I always got it confused with metonymy.”

The fifteen year-old nods sagely and says, “Oh man, I know what you mean. I hate that!”

And you look at your family like they’re pod people, alien replacements for the (mostly) normal folks whose stuff you’re always tripping over on the way to your Captain of the Universe Chair in the family room.

That ever happen to you?

I know. It’s kind of freaky. Not just the pod people thing—the sudden multiple appearances in your life of a word you’d never heard of before.

The thing is, “synecdoche” didn’t just spring up from nowhere to wreak havoc on your self-confidence; it’s always been there. You just didn’t notice it. Your attention gets refocused, and all of a sudden you start seeing things you never saw before, hearing things you are certain have never crossed your path before.

That sort of awareness adjustment happens to churches too.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

7 Things to Remember after Reading the Latest Crappy Membership Numbers in the Yearbook

mainliners cover final (front)Holy Crap! It’s All Falling Apart!

I received my copy of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory yesterday morning. After lunch I picked it up, as I always do upon first receiving it, to look at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church’s entry—just to make sure, you know, that they got everything right. It’s not like the folks who put the Yearbook together have ever gotten itwrong (at least with regard to the congregation’s I’ve been involved in). But it’s a habit. So I looked.

Sure enough, our information had landed in this big fat book just the way we’d sent it. But after taking a look at DBCC’s entry, I glanced around at the other churches in Louisville. Then, I looked for my friends’ congregations. I looked for congregations I used to serve. Habit.

Then I started noticing something that hadn’t really ever caught my attention. I realized that I was looking at, what at least struck me as an inordinately high number of ellipses where numbers are supposed to be.Total Membership: … ; Participating Membership: … ; Average Worship Attendance: … ; Local Operating Receipts: … —well, you get the picture. Nothing. No report.

So, I started going through region by region, just glancing. Same thing; which is to say, an awful lot of nothing. And I felt the dark edges of panic curling at the edges of my consciousness.

Then I started focusing on Local Operating Receipts (i.e., the amount of money a congregation has received to pay for things like salaries, programming, maintenance, utilities, insurance—that sort of thing). And in the places where there were actual numbers, and not just dots, I realized how many congregations are getting by on relatively little money, given all those financial responsibilities I just named.

Then the panic really started to crowd my mind. What about all those young ministers—seminarians and recent graduates? Where are they going to go?

What about my friends who are looking to move to another church, most of them because they have to for one reason or another? Where are they going to go?

And then I thought, “What if DBCC gets really ticked at me, or just gets tired of my sarcasm and flippancy, figures they’ve heard enough of my dog and pony show? Where would I go?”

A sudden cloudburst outside my office window put an exclamation point on—what had already become—a grim afternoon.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

The Lizard Brain: Why Fear Makes Bad Religion and Bad Politics


I’ve been on vacation with my family at the beach this past week. Great time. We always love the ocean.

Walking back to the car from the beach last evening, the wooden plank walkway took us through about 300 yards of marsh. Lots of lizards, snakes, and bugs. In particular, there were tons of dragonflies … and mosquitos—which, if you know much about entomology, makes sense, since dragonflies (or “skeeter hawks” as they’re sometimes called down South) love mosquitos. Dragonflies feast on mosquitos. Some species of dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitos a day.

So, dragonflies are a good thing, right? I know in my mind they are. I can readWikipedia just like anyone else. I’m a rational human being with a Ph.D and a library card. But dragonflies make me cringe. I have this thing when dragonflies are around, a thing that apparently comes from someplace deeper than my prefrontal cortex.

Know why?

When I was six years-old, Danny Gray told me that if you get bit by a dragonfly, you can become paralyzed.

Yep. That’s it. I don’t think with wonder about the prospect of wholesale mosquito assassination when I see a dragonfly. In fact, I don’t think at all, I react. My body, without any input from the cognitive portion of my brain, responds to the signals sent from my Amygdala (the so-called “lizard brain,” or, as I’ve termed it, the “chihuahua brain”). When I see a dragonfly, I don’t see—as most rational people who don’t carry my emotional baggage—a mosquito hit man; I see a paralysis delivery system.


Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

4 Ways Fundamentalism Gets Progressive Christianity Shockingly Wrong


I sometimes get labeled “anti-fundamentalist,” which I find unfortunate. Some of my best friends are fundamentalist.1 I know some people who are amazingly good people who are fundamentalists, people who put the “fun” in “fundamentalist.” So, I reject the assertion that I’m somehow against fundamentalists.

Instead, I prefer to think of myself as anti-Fundamentalism, particularly Christian Fundamentalism.

There, I said it. I think Christian Fundamentalism fails in so many ways to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. The “war on religion” is a war being waged by Christian Fundamentalism.

I want to be quick to point out that I don’t think I’ve got the whole Jesus-thing locked up myself. I’m open to the critique that I get things wrong about Christianity … perhaps even regularly wrong. However, I want to suggest that Christian Fundamentalism gets the gospel fundamentally wrong.

What do I mean?

Here is a list of popular charges leveled against Progressive Christianity, charges that, in many people’s minds, have ceased to be controversial. Christian Fundamentalism has successfully dominated the conversation about the nature and purpose of Christianity to the extent that these charges are viewed (by the culture, as well by other fundamentalists) as largely self-evidently true; they’ve graduated to tropes.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Are Mainline Denominations Dying?

mainliners cover final (front)Get together with a group of mainline ministers and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “I’m not even sure our denomination is going to be here in ten years.” I’m not sure why the event horizon is always a round number, nor am I sure what ecclesiastical tea leaves help generate this number, but it seems to be a mathematical constant.

“Ten years? Are you sure about the number?”

“Well, you know what I mean. Sooner rather than later.”

Mainline denominations typically occupy the center of discussion about decline—particularly decline in church membership. For years it was argued that the trends indicated that liberal theology was to blame, driving members away. But lately, even more theologically conservative churches have experienced a decline in membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, a widely conservative denomination characterized by consistent growth during the period of the mainline membership slump, has just posted a third year of declining membership numbers. The latest figures for 2010 indicate that church membership across the board in the SBC has fallen off by 1.05%.

My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has flailed about in uncertain waters for years. Since 1968, when the Christian Church restructured, officially becoming a denomination, it has lost 901,449 members (57%) and over 2,108 congregations (36%). By comparison, between 1965 and 2005, the United Church of Christ lost (41%) of its members, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 46%. And though since 2006 the decline among Disciples has slowed considerably, losing only 1% of its members and .5% of its congregations, the continued downward trend has many Disciples worried about the long-term viability of the denomination.

Let’s be honest, the statistical trend is frightening. Last year alone, membership figures for mainline denominations were down across the board: United Methodist Church (-1.01%), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (-1.96%), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (-2.61%), Episcopal Church (-2.48%), American Baptist Church (-1.55%), United Church of Christ (-2.83%).2 Sadly, when I go to Google and type in “mainline denomination,” the first suggestion Google provides is “mainline denomination decline.”

But I don’t even think looking at the numbers is the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Getting Things Done: Plodding through the Valley of Abstraction

Golden Piano Keys

“What’s the one thing you’d like to do before you die?”

That’s what I asked them. Five of us sitting around a table in a bar after a wedding. You know how those conversations usually go. Besides my wife, I hadn’t met any of the other people until the day before. But having learned that one woman was a marathoner who expressed no interest in running another one since she’d already accomplished her goal, it got me to thinking. I wondered if she had other big-ticket items on her life to-do list. So I asked everybody what big thing they’d like to accomplish before shuffling off this mortal coil.

One person said, “Play the piano.”

Another said, “Do a hand stand in yoga.”

Still another said, “Be published.”

All of these seemed like reasonable aspirations—not outrageous, like becoming an astronaut or becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon (which aspirations aren’t outrageous either, unless you happen to be on the downward side of middle age). “Doable,” I thought.

So, we talked in a meta-way about accomplishing goals—about how hard you have to work, and how consistently you have to show up. Generalities. It was a bar conversation, after all.

But if it had been in another setting—one that didn’t include a long day, a night of dancing and drinking—I probably would have said, “Ok. So, how are you going to accomplish your goal?”

Look, I’m nobody’s life coach. But I know how this stuff works. Having a goal and accomplishing a goal are the same distance apart as fireflies and fire.

Usually, when I ask that question, “How are you going to accomplish your goal?” what I get is the econo-size box of hesitation. “Um … well … ”

So, the next step (there almost always has to be) is to ask, “What’s the first thing you’d have to do to achieve your goal?”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .